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Good pitching is almost always a business of shattering expectations -following fast pitches with slow, inside with outside. Only the knuckleball, however, sets up expectations, confounds them, renews them and betrays them in the course of a single pitch. (via)
KNUCKLEBALL! is the story of a few good men, a handful of pitchers in the entire history of baseball forced to resort to the lowest rung on the credibility ladder in their sport: throwing a ball so slow and unpredictable that no one wants anything to do with it. The film follows the Major League’s only knuckleballers in 2011, Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey, as they pursue a mercurial art form in a world that values speed, accuracy, and numerical accountability.
What makes the stories of these men so interesting is that they were both stuck with shitty baseball careers before they turned to the knuckleball as a last chance shot at salvation, and they wound up on top of their games. To be a good knuckleballer, “You need the fingertips of a safe cracker and the mind of a Zen buddhist.” (As the film’s tagline says, “To gain power you must first give up control.”)
Essentially, what you do when you throw a knuckleball, is you try to make your pitch the exact same every time, because you’re trying to release the ball with as little spin as possible — when that happens, the air current moves against the baseball’s seams and makes the baseball move really strangely. It takes an enormous amount of discipline and technique to throw the pitch, but once the pitch is thrown, it’s equally unpredictable to the batter, the catcher, and the pitcher who threw it. (R.A. Dickey: “I’m just pitching knuckleball by knuckleball and surrendering to the results.”)
(Of course, I’m thinking about how perfect of a metaphor this is for the practice of art: you sit down everyday with the same routine, but you have to trust that once you let go, the process will take you somewhere unexpected.)
The other thing that’s interesting about the knuckleball is that there are so few pitchers who throw it. Instead of being competitive with each other, they actually form a kind of brotherhood — a pack of outcast weirdos, sharing tips about their obsession. R.A. Dickey writes about how rare this is in his memoir, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball: “There’s no chance that an opposing pitcher, no matter how nice a guy, is going to invite me to watch how he grips and throws his split-fingered fastball or his slider. Those are state secrets.”
Knuckleballers don’t keep secrets. It’s as if we have a greater mission beyond our own fortunes. And that mission is to pass it on, to keep the pitch alive. Maybe that’s because we are so different, and the pitch is so different, but I think it has more to do with the fact that this is a pitch that almost all of us turn to in desperation. It is what enables us to keep pitching, stay in the big leagues, when everything else has failed. So we feel gratitude toward the pitch. It becomes way more than just a means to get an out. It becomes a way of life.
Later, Dickey quotes the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu:
By letting go, it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try, the world is beyond the winning.